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Inside the case: Watch testimony behind the Phoenix protest gang charges

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Posted at 11:34 AM, Feb 05, 2021

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and Phoenix police have designated a group of protesters as a criminal street gang.

The controversial decision has been blasted by community groups, defense attorneys, and legal organizations.

Politically Charged is an ongoing ABC15 investigation series. Click here to watch part one of the series and watch part two of the series in the player above.

While declining to provide specifics about the evidence, police and prosecutors have defended the charges.

POLITICALLY CHARGED: Officials create ‘fictional gang’ to charge protesters

“As I have stated numerous times, my office is committed to protecting the safety of everyone in this community, law enforcement and demonstrators alike," County Attorney Allister Adel said in a written statement. “I fully support everyone in the exercise of their First Amendment rights, but I will not allow criminal conduct, disguised as protest activity, to harm our community.”

ABC15 obtained the full grand jury transcript and video from an 85-minute bond hearing for one of the defendants.

Both pieces of testimony show the legal basis Phoenix officers and county prosecutors used to justify the gang designation and other charges against the group.

Below are excerpts from the grand jury transcript and a bond hearing related to key issues in the case.

“ACAB GANG”

Arizona statutes regarding criminal street gang classification are broad and only require two of the following criteria to be met: (1) Self proclamation; (2) Witness testimony or statements; (3) Written or electronic correspondence; (4) Paraphernalia or photographs; (5) Tattoos; (6) Clothing or colors; (7) Any other indicators.

Phoenix police Sgt. Doug McBride, a “grenadier” who manages the Tactical Response Unit and former gang detective, testified that all members of the group met the criteria for three reasons.

The first is the chanting of “All Cops are Bastards,” which he claimed is self-proclamation. The second was most of the group dressed in black, which meets the colors requirement. And the third was many of the group carried umbrellas, which McBride claimed was part of their uniform.

The following are exchanges between prosecutor April Sponsel and McBride during an October 30, 2020 bond hearing for defendant Suvarna Ratnam.

TIMECODE: 5:35
SPONSEL: Were they yelling or saying anything?
MCBRIDE: Yes, they were.
SPONSEL: What were they yelling or saying?
MCBRIDE: I believe it was ACAB. And then the group would respond, "All Cops are Bastards.”
SPONSEL: In regards to the ACAB, do you know where that came from?
MCBRIDE: We’ve been dealing with it since May, since these protests started. It’s a specific group of individuals that identify themselves as being part of “All Cops Are Bastards,” or ACAB.

Here’s how McBride testified before a grand jury when questioned by a MCAO prosecutor.

PAGES: 31, 34, 36
Q: What is that name of this gang?
A: It is called ACAB, A-C-A-B, and it stands for All Cops Are Bastards. We first came into contact with this group through graffiti, signage, ACAB written on the back of skateboards and different paraphernalia throughout our 150-plus day employment and mobilization and civil unrest in Phoenix.

Q: And what were those two other criteria where you were able to attribute the other individuals listed in the indictment?
A: Both self-proclamation and the colors, the clothing.

Q: And through your training and experience of dealing with this ACAB group, what exactly color — what color do they claim?
A: Black.

Q: And are you finding that ACAB is following the exact same type of philosophy of let’s say the Bloods and the Crips?
A: Yes.

Q: And what about even maybe the same philosophy as the Hells Angels?
A: Very similar, yes.

Q: And why would that be similar?
A: I think because the tattoos, the intimidation factor, how they are directing their violent behavior very similar to the Hells Angel organization where they actually organize their violent behavior, and then they carry that out in a very organized fashion. It’s not random with the Hells Angels.

Q: And are you finding that’s exactly what this ACAB group is doing is they are organizing for the intent to create violence?
A: Yes.

A judge who presided over the Oct. 30, 2020 bond hearing heard similar testimony from McBride.

The judge ruled that Ratnam could be released and said the court did not see evidence of violence the night of the group’s arrest.

“The court does not see that as a threat of violence,” said the judge, discussing the group’s actions that night.

A defense attorney at the hearing also cross-examined McBride about his claims about ACAB.

TIMECODE: 46:14
DEFENSE: Now you said that this group was yelling all cops are bastards during this protest, correct?
MCBRIDE: Yes.
DEFENSE: I watched the video, didn’t they say other things?
MCBRIDE: I’m sure they did.
DEFENSE: Did you hear them say, black lives matter?
MCBRIDE: Not personally no.
DEFENSE: Did you watch the video with sound on it?
MCBRIDE: I did.
DEFENSE: And you didn’t hear them save black lives matter at any point of time during this march?
MCBRIDE: They may have, I’m not saying they didn’t. I just don’t have an independent recollection.

In court motions, another defense attorney attacked the designation of ACAB as a gang, calling it fictional.

“‘ACAB’ is not a gang at all but a political slogan,” Christopher DuPont wrote in the motion to compel prosecutors to release more evidence. “In a continuing affront to the First Amendment, most likely motivated by hatred for a group using such an impolite name (ACAB), state prosecutors abetted by Phoenix police alleged that the protesters had assaulted police officers with deadly weapons, including toy smoke bombs and collapsible umbrellas — even insinuating, without foundation, that protesters had weaponized their fingernails.”

ACAB is a common protest chant that originated almost a century ago and is used across the world.

DuPont further criticized the comparison to the Crips, Bloods, and Hells Angels.

“The state called a witness to testify at grand jury that ACAB was just as dangerous — and in many ways more dangerous — than notorious gangs like the Crips and the Bloods, two gangs that have accounted for as many as 15,000 homicides in the United States during their 30-year run.”

UMBRELLAS

One of the criteria used to file gang charges was that many members of the group carried umbrellas during the protest.

TIMECODE: 19:42; 29:15;
SPONSEL: The umbrellas, have you seen this tactic used in the past?
MCBRIDE: Yes.
SPONSEL: And is this a tactic that’s commonly used by this particular group?
MCBRIDE: Yes it is.

SPONSEL: What are they doing with the umbrellas right there?
MCBRIDE: They are keeping them between us and them, and they’re swinging them back and forth basically as a distraction, to conceal what they’re doing, just cause, they’re trying to prevent us from arresting them.

In testimony before the grand jury, McBride also discussed the umbrellas.

PAGE: 38
Q: And what about the umbrella, is that part of their, I guess you could say their gang uniform?
A: It is. It’s an extension of what they are doing to disrupt us and to try and defeat our tactics which are pepper spray and different types of nonlethal munitions. The umbrella will provide a protective umbrella around them, to use the umbrella word, and then it will also conceal what they are doing. As this group moved on October 17th, they were able to conceal what each person was doing by draping umbrellas around the exterior of the group so we couldn’t see inside.

Umbrellas are common at protests and have been seen in many cities across the country.

It’s something the defense attorney emphasized in the hearing.

TIMECODE: 48:16
DEFENSE: Would you agree those umbrellas are used for them to protect themselves from getting pepper sprayed?
MCBRIDE: That’s one example of their use.

Members of the group told ABC15 the umbrellas are also to keep alt-right counter-protesters, who were following along next to police, from "doxxing" them.

PROTESTER’S RIFLE

A member of the group, Britney Austin, was carrying a rifle during the protest.

McBride discussed the rifle during his grand jury testimony.

PAGE: 47
A: I didn’t mention earlier, but there is one individual that we noticed early on who has an AR-15 rifle slung. So they cover that person up as well so we can’t see what they are doing either.

Q: Does that create a risk for you guys?
A: Absolutely. It’s a huge hazard for us.

Q: And even though that person is not pointing the gun at you guys in any way, shape, or form, by the mere fact they are covering it up does that put you guys in apprehension that something could happen?
A: Absolutely.

In the bond hearing, the defense attorney questioned McBride about the AR-15.

TIMECODE: 39:30
DEFENSE: You said there was an individual with an AR-15 at the scene that day?
MCBRIDE: Yes sir.
DEENSE: Alright, is there anything illegal about having an AR-15?
MCBRIDE: No…
DEFENSE: Was that person a prohibited possessor?
MCBRIDE: Not to my knowledge…
DEFENSE: Did that person ever point it at any officer or threaten to point it at any officer?
MCBRIDE: Not to my knowledge.
DEFENSE: So you’d agree with me that that AR-15 did not calculate into your factors of rioting?
MCBRIDE: Correct.

The judge at the hearing also said the gun and the group’s other actions did not constitute violence or the threat of violence.

TIMECODE: 1:17:30
“The court has to look at whether that was a threatening use of force or violence. We are an open carry state,” the judge said. “You are free to carry a gun. That may be threatening to other people, but that is your right in Arizona.”

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.